Aspects of the Struggle

By Bigras, Pierre; Urdang, Stephanie et al. | Monthly Review, April 1986 | Go to article overview

Aspects of the Struggle

Bigras, Pierre, Urdang, Stephanie, Lewis, Jon, Joffe, Avril, Hovey, Gail, Monthly Review


In late August 1985 the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) was outlawed by Minister of Law and Order Louis Le Grange. The banning of the UDF-affiliated black high school students' organization constituted an admission by the apartheid state of the central role played by African youth in the struggle. Since the student-inspired Soweto uprising of 1976, the demands of African youth have started off with school-related grievances but have invariably grown to include community-wide and class-related issues. COSAS in fact must rank first on Le Grange's hit list. Prior to the declaration of the state of emergency, the majority of the 215 people detained under the Internal Security Act were members of COSAS, and between the imposition of the state of emergency (July 21) and the outlawing of the organization (August 28), more than 500 of its cadres were detained. This meant that COSAS militants alone represented nearly 20 percent of all South African political detainees; furthermore, 50 percent of these detainees were sixteen years old or less.

Economy and Society

South Africa is in a double bind. On the one hand, the economic and demographic crises are coming to a head and on the other the contradictions of the apartheid system of economic exploitation and political repression are fueling the pent-up anger of a new generation of politically educated Africans. Half of the South African black majority is less than twenty-five years old, mostly urbanized and literate; and yet because of South Africa's great dependency on primary commodity exports, from mining and agriculture, and apartheid-distorted labor markets, these young Africans are condemned to structural unemployment for the whole of their lives, and they know it. If part of this situation can be attributed to the dependency on exports and to a stagnating internal white consumer market, apartheid must still be singled out as the major cause of the problem--e.g., 35,000 skilled workers and technicians are needed every year and only 12,000 get training; the majority of them are whites.

The rapid expansion of the African education system, which has gone from 800,000 pupils in the 1950s to more than 5 million today, has also been a problem. Most African teachers are unqualified, and the rate of expansion of the system has been such that there is no hope of upgrading their skills over the short run. The African "ethnic" universities are, for all intents and purposes, closed to all but Afrikaner university graduates and their scholarly output. The main function of Afrikaner lecturers and professors, who constitute better than 95 percent of the academic staff at these "ethnic" universities, is to teach blacks that they can never hope to be the equals of whites. African students have not, and are not, receiving an education that prepares them for a highly competitive socioeconomic environment; they are being taught that petty jobs, if any, and the daily violence of the townships is the normality that they must expect. They are being prepared for an economy and society where entrenched racial discrimination is the prime juro-legal determinant of an individual's position in the system. But what African students have actually learned is that they all share a common enemy: the apartheid state. In that context the specific demands made by students must be seen as symptomatic of their total rejection of apartheid education and society as a whole, and as an index of the extent of the political consciousness of African youth in general.

Youth Organizations

Only two years after the banning of the black consciousness-inspired student unions in 1977, COSAS emerged. This time around, the major political forces in the high schools abandoned the trappings of black consciousness and rallied to the Freedom Charter as the basis for political action. Together with AZASO, its equivalent at African college and university level, COSAS has put together an Education Charter that clearly spells out the demands of the disenfranchised majority of South Africans and the need for a unified and democratic system of education. …

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